I think bad news gets a bad rap. Bad news is actually a good thing. We all need bad news. Bad news is vital for us to properly function as human beings. OK, now that I have your attention, let me explain.
We live in an age that only appreciates good news. We just don’t want to hear about bad news. But there is one bit of good news which is the greatest good news ever, but it makes no sense without the worst news ever. I refer to the Christian gospel.
The word gospel means good news. In the Greek we have the term euangelion. The noun is used over seventy times in the New Testament, with the verb form used some fifty times. It is from these Greek terms that the English words evangel, evangelist, evangelism and evangelical derive. Christians of course refer to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross as the good news.
But this good news is predicated upon, and is only explicable in terms of, the bad news. That bad news is that we are all sinners, separated from God, and deserving the just punishment of God. This bad news is not preached as often as it once was. Many want to preach the good side of the good news without mentioning the bad side of it. But this simply cannot be done.
The good news makes no sense unless we have a solid grasp of the bad news. Because of the hesitancy of many to focus on this core doctrine – human fallenness and sinfulness – several full length treatments of the subject have appeared in the past decade or so.
These include: Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (1994); Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. (1995); Henri Blocher, Original Sin (1997); Robert Pyne, Humanity and Sin (1999); and Marguerite Shuster, The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become as Sinners (2003).
In addition to Christian theologians, others have noted the absence of sin in our thinking and vocabulary. Back in 1973 American psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book with the provocative and incisive title, Whatever Became of Sin? Even non-Christians can see how the concept of sin has withered away in contemporary culture.
But as noted, the good news of the gospel is empty unless paired with the bad news of the gospel. Someone who combines the insights of both theology and psychology is Mark McMinn. His 2004 book, Why Sin Matters nicely makes the case for the need to align the good news with the bad news. And as a psychologist, he capably blends theological truths with practical application.
His theological understanding has greatly enriched his understanding as a psychologist, and his ability to help others springs from his understanding of the biblical conception of sin. The opening chapters of this helpful book present the case for affirming and presenting both sides of the gospel. They are worth mining for a number of helpful quotes.
He reminds us that the prelude to grace is the recognition of our sin. We need to move beyond our weakened and distorted notions of sin in order to “reclaim it as an essential vocabulary – one that opens the possibility of forgiveness, redemption, and renewed relationships.” These gifts come from telling the whole story:
“Sin and grace are part of the same story, and if we leave out either part, we end up with a shallow, life-draining theology. We cannot understand God without understanding our need for God, and we cannot understand our needy condition without first understanding something of God’s mercy. Both sides of the story must be told.”
He uses the familiar gospel story of the Prodigal Son to make his case: “The prodigal must confess his sin and plead for mercy, and yet he must know something of his father’s mercy before he dares admit his sin. Sin needs grace, and true grace can be offered only in the presence of sin.”
As is often the case, we need the biblical balance, and need to avoid extremes: “The risk is in telling only half the story. If we leave grace out of the story, as many Christians have done over the centuries, a healthy passion for righteousness slowly decays into stifling legalism.”
But the other side is also needed: “leaving sin out of the story robs us of life-giving grace. Whenever we leave sin out of the story, as we often do, our historic theological vocabulary is supplanted by a shallow popularized psychology and we end up with what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as cheap grace.”
“True grace cannot be cheap because sin is so costly. God hates sin with a passion that should drive us to our knees in remorse and contrition. . . . Grace is popular; sin is offensive. When we emphasize grace without speaking of sin, we turn God into one who gives us a break when we are down and encourages us when we are sad. We domesticate God into one who is merely nice.”
He continues, “Our sinfulness is bigger than we want to imagine. Only as we begin to grasp the immensity of the sin problem are we able to glimpse the depth of God’s grace, and paradoxically, seeing God’s grace gives us courage to face our sinfulness.”
“Some people may avoid a language of sin because it makes them feel small and frail. Nothing could be further from the truth. The honest language of sin prepares us to see our infinite value in the arms of God, to breathe in the fragrance of life-giving love, and then to offer that love lavishly to ourselves and others.”
“Our only hope is to fall, like prodigals, before our gracious God, who then lifts us to our feet, clothes us in a spectacular robe, and throws a party in our honor. Yes, our sin is worse than we think. God’s response is better than we can possibly imagine.”
McMinn spends the bulk of his book looking at counselling cases he has been involved in, and how this understanding of sin and grace ties in to this work. In his concluding chapter he brings this all this together. He notes how genuine human relationships must be based on these twin truths:
“Authentic human community calls us to embrace one another with understanding and an awareness of our mutual vulnerability. . . . Even Jesus – the only sinless one in human history, and therefore the only one with a right to stand in judgment – said to the adulterous woman, ‘Neither do I [condemn you]’.”
“Perhaps paradoxically, the second principle of human community is that we call one another to higher standards. Jesus said more to the woman caught in adultery: ‘Neither do I [condemn you]. Go and sin no more’. . . . A mark of authentic community is to help one another in sanctification. It is not enough to wallow in our sinfulness together. Together we turn around and move in a better direction.”
Quite right; we are all needy sinners who blow it constantly. But as followers of Jesus, we have been redeemed and given the ability to turn things around. So we need to be patient with one another, but we also need to encourage one another to move on to better things.
And all this is possible only when we have a proper grasp of our own sin and of God’s grace. Both are much more profound than we realise. So three cheers for bad news. It is the wonderful prelude to the good news – the best news one can possibly hear.
(Why Sin Matters is available in Australia at Koorong Books)